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20,000 make a stand in Genk, Belgium
THEY are two cities that have both suffered major blows at the hands of car maker Ford.
When the motor giant announced cuts across Europe two weeks ago it sent shockwaves through Southampton and the Belgian city of Genk.
While the closure of a major employer is the last thing either local economy needed the reaction has been somewhat different.
While in Southampton, despite the anger of local politicians, the fallout from the workforce at the Swaythling plant has been somewhat muted.
But yesterday 360 miles away 20,000 people marched through the heart of Genk to send a resounding message to Ford bosses who two weeks ago revealed plans to shut down its plant.
It directly employs 4,300 workers but civic leaders say the knock-on result could see up to 10,000 end up jobless.
Southampton and the Genk factory were both given assurances about their future before Ford dropped the bombshell closure announcements.
Workers from the threatened Belgian plant, their families, children and supporters marched in a noisy and colourful parade to express their anger.
Scores of buses transported them from the Ford factory (below) on the industrial outskirts of Genk to the city centre march.
Flags and banners from the three unions representing workers were held high under a bright blue sky as they made their way along the 2km route to a huge rally.
A 13,000 capacity square at a cultural centre on the site of a former coal mine was packed out with a sea of demonstrators.
Some hung off the huge winding towers that once winched down miners until the industry closed 25 years ago in the last major blow to the region’s economy.
A big TV screen was set up outside for people that could not fit in. The local council estimated more than 20,000 had attended.
Most were from Belgium but there were also small delegations of Ford workers from Spain and Germany as well as Peugeot workers from France.
Unite, the union representing Southampton workers, did not send an official delegation.
Local music acts performed songs penned specifically for the Ford workers.
William de Witte, 64, from the ABVV socialist union said workers had come together in a defiant show of solidarity.
“The people here feel very angry and betrayed by Ford,” he said.
Genk mayor Wim Dries said Ford bosses had “taken away the pride” of workers and left them feeling angry, disappointed and uncertain of the future for their children.
“They (Ford) should understand if you take the future away of 10,000 people it means something,” he said.
The “March for the Future”, backed by the council, passed off peacefully.
It was also organised to send a signal that the city and region will come together for a future without Ford, added the mayor.
Burned out Ford cars yesterday remained at the gates to the Genk plant where workers have set up blockades to stop around 4,000 newly-built cars being transported out.
They are due to return to work on Thursday after a temporary shutdown due to falling demand but unions have vowed not to allow the 800 or 900 cars assembled daily to leave until Ford bosses come to the factory for talks.
Mayor Dries told the Daily Echo the closure announcement came as a “total shock” after a series of assurances from Ford that the Genk plant would make the next model Mondeo, Galaxy and Smax cars.
He said workers had cut their pay by 12 per cent in the past two years under a deal to remain competitive and keep work and jobs at the factory to 2014 They had been led to believe the new models would bring further work until 2020, he added.
He said, while Ford claimed a final decision on the future of the factory had not been made until a meeting of US executives in Detroit on October 19, the halting of work to retool the factory for a new Mondeo in July and again in September raised fears among workers and unions.
Mayor Dries said workers were told of the factory closure on the day they were due to celebrate the 50th anniversay of its construction and accused Ford’s European boss Stephen Odell of “cowardice” by making the announcement in Brussels rather than at the Genk factory.
He said he had been unaware of the £80m European loan support for Ford’s Turkish Transit factory, which will take over Southampton’s work, or the British Govern-ment’s award of a £9m grant to create jobs in Essex.
But he said by contrast the Belgian Government had now frozen a £13m funding package to support the new car models being built in Genk.
Asked about the prospect of a Ford boycott Mayor Dries said he was considering whether the city’s municipal and police fleet of more than 200 Ford cars would be replaced with the same brand if the factory closure went ahead.
“We won’t change them tomorrow.
"But we will think about whether we still have to buy Ford,” he said.
“If Ford goes away why should we still buy them?”